Thursday, June 04, 2020

How Endangered is Eliot Engel?

Rep. Eliot Engel (D-NY) has been in Congress for over thirty years. In that time, he's been a pretty standard-issue New York Jewish Democrat -- generally progressive, solidly pro-Israel, slowly working his way up the ranks (he's currently Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee).

This year, however, he's facing a spirited primary challenge from middle school educator Jamaal Bowman. Is this the next AOC-shocker (AOC just endorsed Bowman, as it happened)?

On the one hand: First, Engel would have to be an absolute idiot to be sleeping on this race -- especially given the AOC example from last cycle. So while I'm not versed in exactly what's going on in New York campaigning, I have to assume he's putting out ads and has his campaign apparatus in gear. Engel has the endorsement of the Congressional Black Caucus, which can only help him, and he also has a very large war chest to spend.

Moreover, there actually haven't been that many House Democratic incumbents that have gone down in defeat this cycle, despite a lot of online energy propping up this or that left-wing challenger. For example, there were plenty of people excitedly chatting up Mckayla Wilkes' challenge to House  Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, but earlier this week Hoyer beat her by almost 60 points. We have to remember: online energy doesn't usually translate into actual votes. The main counterexample this year was Marie Newman's defeat of Dan Lipinski in Illinois -- but Lipinski is far to the right of his district and was already shown to be vulnerable when he barely won renomination in 2018. Engel, by contrast, has a largely progressive voting record and has not shown much prior vulnerability.

On the other hand: The energy I'm seeing on Bowman's behalf does seem qualitatively different from those of other seemingly analogous challengers-from-the-left. He gained a boost when another left-leaning challenger dropped out and endorsed him, which will help consolidate the anti-Engel vote. Bowman's also getting outside support from AOC, the Justice Democrats, and the Working Family's Party, which will partially (though not entirely) off-set Engel's financial edge.

Meanwhile, Engel had a major mic gaffe the other day, when he said that "if he didn't have a primary he wouldn't care" about not being given the opportunity to speak at an anti-police brutality press conference. While the remark is pretty clearly being taken out of context (he was saying the primary is why he cared about being denied a speaking slot, not that the primary is why he cared about police brutality issues), politics isn't fair and Bowman's gained huge momentum off the gaffe.

The other big wild card is how the coronavirus epidemic and anti-police brutality protests will effect the race. Normally, the conventional wisdom is that anything that disrupts traditional campaigning helps the incumbent, because it's the challenger who has to overcome inertia. But in this case, I can very easily see these issues congealing into a generic anti-status quo sentiment among Democratic primary voters, a sense that what we have now just isn't working, and that could easily be directed (fairly or not) against an entrenched incumbent like Engel. My gut instinct is that Engel will not benefit from the chaos and uncertainty.

The primary is June 23, and right now I don't really have a prediction. Let's see what develops.

Wednesday, June 03, 2020

What Went On Downballot Tonight

A bunch of states held primaries today, but for the most part they weren't too interesting. The biggest news by far was the defeat of White supremacist (and former Ted Cruz presidential campaign chair) Iowa Republican Rep. Steve King, who was ousted by State Sen. Randy Feenstra. While this probably locks the normally solid red seat up for the GOP (unless King runs as an independent), most progressives still cheered the defeat of the most avowedly racist member of Congress.

Aside from that, though, there were very few marquee races. Incumbents won, generally quite handily. Rep. Kweisi Mfume (D), who defeated former Rep. Elijah Cummings' widow in a special election a few months ago, repeated the feat in tonight's primary to win the Democratic nomination in Maryland's 7th congressional district. There was some barking by the left at targeting House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, but he crushed progressive challenger with little trouble. Over in Pennsylvania, Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, one of the few House Republicans who still can kinda-sorta gesture at being a moderate, looks like he managed to turn back a challenge from his right -- he's up 56/44 with just over half reporting (this seat will be a Democratic target come November).

So barring major action in the federal races, is there anything worth reporting further down the ballot? Potentially.

Start in Massachusetts, which had two State House special elections tonight. Democrats held the HD-37 in Middlesex, and, perhaps more importantly, flipped a Republican seat (HD-3) in Bristol. This follows on the heels of Democrats flipping to Massachusetts State Senate seats from red to blue a few weeks ago. While this has no immediate impact on the Bay State political arena -- Democrats enjoy commanding leads in both legislative chambers -- it still represents good news. The Bristol seat is one where Democrats have historically done well at the top of the ballot but have struggled in more local races; if voters of this ilk are becoming more solidly blue, that can only be a good thing.

Moving over to New Mexico, where a slate of progressive challengers sought to tackle right-wing incumbent Democrats who had joined Republicans to block reproductive rights legislation. In the State Senate, it looks like at least three Democratic incumbents have been defeated, in the 5th, 28th, and 35th Senate districts. Another two races, the 30th district and the 38th district (where the incumbent is State Senate President Pro Tem Mary Kay Papen) are too close to call. Also in New Mexico, Teresa Leger Fernandez defeated Valarie Plame to become the Democratic nominee for the third congressional district, vacated by Rep. Ben Lujan (D). I'm not sad about this result.

Montana kind of was a New Mexico in reverse, with the state GOP divided between a moderate "Solutions Caucus" wing (which has been working with legislative Democrats and incumbent Democratic Governor Steve Bullock) and a hard-line ".38 Special" group, which views cooperation as an anathema. Members of both groups faced primary challenges from the other wing, and the overall results were mixed.

Right-wing challengers targeted two moderate state Senators as well as ten state Representatives. On the Senate side, they split (ousting the incumbent in the SD-28 but falling short in the SD-10). In the House, they won in the HD-35, HD-37, and HD-68 but lost in the HD-7, HD-14, HD-21, HD-39, HD-70, HD-86 and HD-88. Meanwhile, centrist challengers took on four .38 special incumbents in the state House, defeating two. The moderates prevailed in the HD-9 and HD-75, while the conservative incumbents hung on the HD-10 and HD-11. Overall, close to a wash.

Our final stop tonight is Pennsylvania, where a bunch of Democratic incumbents appear to be in trouble, but I've yet to find a clear story as to why. Well, that's not wholly true -- in the SD-17, the incumbent is facing sexual harassment allegations, which probably has a lot to do with his troubles. But Democratic incumbents are also trailing in the SD-1 (Farnese), HD-20 (Ravenstahl), HD-182 (Sims), HD-185 (Donatucci), HD-188 (Roebuck), and HD-190 (Green). So far, I haven't found a clear through narrative for these races akin to what we're seeing in New Mexico or Montana. Of the endangered incumbents, Sims is probably the highest profile -- he recently went viral after accusing Republican colleagues of hiding a positive coronavirus diagnosis from House Democrats, placing them in danger. A lot of votes are still being tabulated because they were sent by mail, so I've been cautioned that some of the closer races (including Sims') may change.

Oh, one last thing: in Iowa, just one incumbent lost her primary race -- longtime Democratic state Rep. Vicki Lensing was ousted by University of Iowa law professor Christina Bohannan. I have no idea what these means politically, but I'm always happy to see law professors succeed in their life projects.

Tuesday, June 02, 2020

Are Americans Grasping the Reality of Police Violence?

As the nation continues to be gripped by protests against police brutality, I've been struck by the near-constant footage of excessive police force against journalists and civilians who seem to be doing nothing more than exercising their constitutional rights. For me, it powerfully communicates the reality of a central theme of the protests: that the police are out of control and are acting as a tool of repression and violence against the Americans they nominally are there to protect.

But my vantage is only a partial one, and I've been waiting to see evidence about how the American people as a whole are reacting. We all still are living in the shadow of 1968, and there is the constant fear that the narrative that emerges will be one where the police are the victims and "law and order" must be restored. Is that what's happening?

Today, Kevin Drum links to new polling that gives cause for optimism: Asked over the weekend whether "police violence against the public" or "violence against the police" was a more serious problem, Americans picked the former by a 55/30 margin. Independents answered at roughly the same margin -- 54/27. Even White Americans agreed by a 50/35 margin (for Black Americans, the gap was a whopping 85/8).

It's just one poll, and just one question. But it does seem to point to a potential sea change (also on that note: a Minneapolis city councilor talking seriously about trying to disband the Minneapolis Police Department outright).

Meanwhile, it's primary night in several states across America -- off-hand, none of the marquee races seem like they'd be particularly impacted by the protests (maybe the effort to take out White Supremacist GOP Rep. Steve King), but I suppose we'll see.

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Eighth Circuit Absolves Another Minnesota Police Killing

On Friday, the United States Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit handed down its opinion in Kong v. City of Burnsville, a case regarding the killing by Burnsville police of an Asian-American man in the midst of a mental health crisis (Burnsville is a suburb of Minneapolis). The district court had denied qualified immunity to the officers, allowing the case to go to trial. On appeal, however, the Eighth Circuit (by 2-1 vote) reversed, holding that the officers' conduct did not violate clearly established law.

The facts of the case are complicated. Early one morning, Burnsville police received a report of suspicious activity in a McDonald's parking lot. A man (Kong) had been spotted sitting in his car for thirty minutes, waving a knife and jumping around. Officers arrived and at first passively monitored the situation. Then they asked the man to put down the knife; he was unresponsive. It was pretty evident that he was undergoing a mental health crisis, but he had not committed any felonies and did not appear to be an immediate threat to anyone.

Eventually, police broke the windows of his car and tased Kong twice. Kong did not drop the knife; he stumbled out of the car and broke out running towards the street where traffic was still driving by. At that point, police officers opened fire, striking and killing him (one bullet lodged in the bumper of a passing vehicle).

The majority held that it was not clearly established that the police could not open fire in this scenario. They contended instead that the officers reasonably perceived Kong as posing an imminent safety threat to the civilians driving by. Judge Kelly, in dissent, pointed out that it was obvious that Kong was undergoing a mental health crisis and he had never threatened anyone, and that in any event people in cars would not be in especial danger from someone holding a knife. A jury could therefore conclude that the decision to open fire on Kong was excessive.

I personally think this is legally a close case -- though close cases I think are generally best left to juries rather than plucked out by judges. But given the current circumstances in the Twin Cities and around the country, I thought it was noteworthy that this case was handed down this Friday, and wanted to give out the facts.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Qualified Immunity and Criminal Law

Normally, we think of civil cases as being easier to win than their criminal counterparts. The standard of proof is lower ("preponderance of the evidence" versus "beyond a reasonable doubt"), and many activities which are not subject to criminal penalties might nonetheless carry civil liability. There's a reason why O.J. Simpson was acquitted of murder but nonetheless lost the civil suit against him for wrongful death.

But, at least in the context of police brutality cases, there is one hurdle present in civil litigation that is not found in criminal law: qualified immunity.

Qualified immunity is a judicially-made doctrine that shields officers of the state (not just police officers, though they're the most common subjects of litigation) from civil liability for constitutional violations unless they violate "clearly established" law. In other words, it's not enough for the police officer to have violated the law, it has to have been obvious in advance that they violated the law. The judiciary has interpreted this in an exceptionally stingy fashion, insisting on extremely granular inquiries into whether the precise fact pattern alleged by the plaintiff had been specifically demarcated as unlawful in a prior case. The question isn't something like "has it been 'clearly established' that a police officer can't physical strike an non-resisting suspect?", it's instead more like "has it been 'clearly established' that a police officer can't specifically tackle a non-violent, non-resisting, non-threatening suspect who weighed 130 lbs?" If one doesn't find a case that mirrors those facts, the law isn't "clearly established" and the case fails. The Supreme Court itself has accordingly characterized qualified immunity as a shield for all except "the plainly incompetent or those who knowingly violate the law." And the Eighth Circuit (which includes Minnesota) -- well, it's insulated some pretty wretched behavior under qualified immunity's guise (and some of its judges think it hasn't gone far enough!).

By its nature, qualified immunity means that many actions which are concededly unlawful violations of Americans' civil rights are nonetheless protected from civil suit. But there is no qualified immunity in the criminal law: one cannot escape criminal punishment by arguing that there has not been prior case law "clearly establishing" that the conduct you're accused of is unlawful. I'm dubious about the ultimate viability of criminal law to serve as a systemic brake on police brutality -- I'm not sure that is a task it is well-suited for (though it is certainly appropriate in particular cases -- the George Floyd case appearing to be an obvious). But a criminal prosecution -- as much as it is (properly!) hamstrung by heightened burdens of proof compared to a civil suit -- does evade the strictures of qualified immunity. And given how aggressively the judiciary has interpreted qualified immunity to shield bad actors in the American policing system, that's a virtue which cannot be discounted.

Sunday, May 24, 2020

Albert Memmi (1920 - 2020)

Albert Memmi, the great Tunisian-Jewish anti-colonial writer and theorist, has passed away at age 99.

Late last year, a friend and I had the early sketches of a plan to host a conference in honor of Memmi's 100th birthday (at the time, the most common response to this idea was for people to exclaim "he's still alive?"). That was put on brakes after the coronavirus hit, but there's no question Memmi remains worthy of study and (now) memorialization.

Albert Memmi was born in Tunis in 1920. In his early life he was involved in socialist youth movements, and during the Nazi occupation of Tunisia he was interned in a slave labor camp (from which he escaped). After the war, he became one of the leading intellectual lights of the movement to free Tunisia from French colonization. What Fanon was to Algeira, Memmi was to Tunisia, and for many years Memmi's book The Colonizer and the Colonized was read alongside Fanon's The Wretched of the Earth as cornerstone texts of decolonial theory. That is much less true today, possibly because Memmi's later work was more conservative, possibly because Memmi was emphatic throughout his career that he viewed Zionism as the decolonization movement of the Jews.

Unfortunately, following independence Memmi found that Tunisia had little place for Jews, and he exiled himself to France where he spent the remainder of his life. He wrote a trilogy of books -- Portrait of a Jew, Liberation of the Jew, and Jews and Arabs -- which have been widely overlooked but which I think are each superb explorations of the Jewish condition that continue to resonate to this day (many excerpts from these books have been featured on this blog). He continued to write prolifically, culminating in a follow-up to The Colonizer and the Colonized titled Decolonization and the Decolonized in 2006. This book was controversial, as Memmi evinced a marked conservative turn, and there are parts of it that made me wince as a reader. But that does not mean it is not worth reading, as is the broader corpus of Memmi's amazing life's works.

While Fanon famously died extremely young, Memmi's career as a writer spanned well over a half-century, witnessing tremendous revolutions in his homeland and in the disciplinary areas he wrote upon. Hence, I've sometimes described Memmi as the version of Fanon who got to watch the decolonization story actually unfold. By itself, that makes him a fascinating character. But Memmi deserved to be read and praised in his own right, not simply as a shadow of Fanon.

May his memory be a blessing.

Thursday, May 21, 2020

Handicapping the Senate

It's less than six months from election day, so why not handicap the current state of the 2020 Senate races?

I'm going to list the (competitive) races in order of likelihood to flip to the opposing party.

1. Alabama (Doug Jones - D):  You know that West Wing plot where the Democratic nominee in a super-Republican district dies before election day, and Sam Seaborn offers to run in the special election if the dead guy somehow ends up winning? And then every confluence of luck and God and good fortune smiled and the dead guy did win, forcing Sam into a congressional run doomed as soon as it began?

That's kind of Doug Jones' re-election campaign. Everything -- everything -- had to break in increasingly ludicrous fashion for a Democrat to win a Senate seat in Alabama, right down to his opponent being an actual pedophile. And it still was a 2 point race. This was a great victory, and Jones deserves to be showered with plaudits and praise for it. But it'd take another miracle for him to win in 2020, and I don't see it. The only bright spot is that former Auburn football coach Tommy Tuberville looks likely to best ex-Senator and former Trump AG Jeff Sessions to become the GOP nominee -- not because Tuberville is better, but because one of the few joys of the Trump era has been watching him repeatedly wreck the careers of his erstwhile friends.

2. Colorado (Cory Gardner - R): Colorado, like Nevada, is a state that seemed to go from red to light blue, skipping entirely over purple in the process. Cory Gardner never got the memo, and has legislated like a GOP diehard for his entire first term -- never even gesturing at a pivot toward the center. The reward for his Trumpist loyalty is to be polling down double digits against Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper (doing the right thing running for Senate instead of a quixotic Presidential campaign). It's hard to see how he survives -- he ranks below Jones only because Colorado isn't so solidly blue that a Republican victory would require divine intervention.

3. Arizona (Martha McSally - R [special]): Every once in awhile, one comes across a politician who seems perfectly fine on paper, who doesn't seem to have any particular attributes that make her especially lovable or loathable, yet who voters for whatever reason just don't cotton to. Martha McSally seems to be one of those pols. She just lost a Senate race in 2018 to Kyrsten Sinema in a mild upset that presaged Arizona suddenly becoming a real Democratic target, then immediately got appointed to fill the shoes of departing Republican Senator Jon Kyl. Now she's polling down again to Mark Kelly (astronaut husband of shooting survivor and ex-Rep. Gabby Giffords), in a state where Biden is posting some very impressive numbers. Other politicians might be able to reverse the tide. But McSally just doesn't seem to vibe with the folks she needs to, and the trend lines aren't pulling her way. The most recent poll to drop in Arizona has her losing by a crushing 13 point margin.

4. Maine (Susan Collins - R): This would be among the sweetest fruits for me, and Sara Gideon has a very strong shot to take out Moderate Republican(tm) Susan Collins. Maine remains blue at the presidential level, and Collins once sky-high approvals have been in free fall as she's played loyal foot soldier to McConnell and Trump. Yet it's hard not to imagine she's stockpiled some good will from her (however tattered) reputation as a moderate, and Maine more so than anywhere in New England has some areas that are surprisingly Trump-friendly. This will be a real slugfest.

5. North Carolina (Thom Tillis - R): The "new south" -- educated, suburban, professional, racially diverse, and increasingly blue-friendly -- is creeping up and down the Atlantic coast. Virginia's already been taken over. Georgia an increasingly plum target. But the next domino most likely to fall is North Carolina -- still the palest shade of red leaning, but a place where Democratic fortunes appear to be waxing. Tillis has two other things cutting against him: he'll be sharing a ballot with wildly popular Democratic Governor Roy Cooper (who appears to be thrashing any GOP challengers), and a flood of bad press hitting his Senate colleague Richard Burr for allegedly dumping stock before the coronavirus news really broke. Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham is polling well here -- either moderately ahead or at worst tied.

6. Montana (Steve Daines - R): Governor Steve Bullock is another entry in the "thank you for abandoning a ridiculous POTUS bid and running for Senate instead" list, and he instantly turns this race into a real Democratic opportunity. Montana has been quietly getting more competitive over the past few years as the western half of the state and what passes for "cities" turn bluer, and Democratic Senator Jon Tester won a hotly contested 2018 Senate race by a close but not squeaky-thin 3.5% margin. Daines has the advantage of incumbency plus Trump's coattails, but Bullock is popular statewide. This has flown under the radar a bit, and I think Bullock's got a real shot.

7. Georgia (Kelly Loeffler - R [special]): This would place a lot higher if I was ordering based on "likelihood the incumbent loses". Loeffler, only recently appointed by Governor Brian Kemp, is abysmally unpopular in the Peach State, and right now she's polling fourth in a free-for-all election (behind fellow Republican Doug Collins and then two Democrats). The reasons are myriad -- Trump made it clear she was not his choice for the appointment, and she too has gotten into hot water over coronavirus-related trading -- but the end result is she's unlikely to even advance to the run-off. Unfortunately for Democrats, run-offs in Georgia have tended to sharply favor the GOP, so the most likely person to emerge from the scrum is Collins -- an even further-right Trump loyalist. There's also the alarming possibility that, in a highly fractured field, Loeffler manages to squeak into second and lock Democrats out entirely. Of course if that happens, Loeffler's only hope to prevail is to attract cross-over votes ....

8. Michigan (Gary Peters - D): Outside Alabama, this is by far the GOP's best chance for a 2020 Senate pickup. John James is a very strong candidate who ran a surprisingly close race against Debbie Stabenow in 2018, and he's back for a second crack at the Senate. Peters is not as well established as Stabenow was, and 2020 will likely not be as big a blue wave year as 2018 was. On the other hand, Democratic fortunes in Michigan seem to be on the rise, and Biden should perform better there than Clinton did in 2016. That's enough to make Peters the favorite, but not an overwhelming one.

9. Iowa (Joni Ernst - R): Once the ultimate bellwether, Iowa has seemingly been largely written off as a legitimate Democratic target, and for a long time Joni Ernst seemed to be coasting to re-election. But her numbers are surprisingly soft -- two polls this month have her deadlocked with her two most likely Democratic challengers -- and Democrats did win three of four Iowa House seats in 2018. She's definitely still the favorite, but an upset can't be written off.

10. Georgia (David Perdue - R): The other Georgia race, minus the particular "complexities" raised by Loeffler's unique unpopularity. That means most of the above analysis applies, but only more so for the Republicans. Georgia continues to creep towards purple status, but odds are it won't quite get there in 2020.

11. Kansas (Open [Pat Roberts] - R): Kris Kobach blew the Governor's race for the GOP in 2018, but that hasn't deterred him from seeking the Senate nod in 2020. It's possible he'll get it, and so it's possible he'll lose again. Democrats have rarely been competitive in the Sunflower State, but 2018 showed they had a heartbeat. Meanwhile, the state Republican Party has been in a state of near-civil war for years between (relative) moderates and true firebreathers. The latter camp had their man in the Governor's mansion in the form of Sam Brownback, and his experiment in scorched-earth conservative governance led the GOP to unprecedented unpopularity in a state they normally dominate in.

12. Kentucky (Mitch McConnell - R): I know I said Susan Collins would be the sweetest fruit, but if Mitch McConnell goes down I'll revise that assessment. It's unlikely -- Kentucky is blood red at the Presidential level, and McConnell has effectively infinite resources at his disposal. But Andy Beshear's win of the Governor's mansion showed that Democrats still can win statewide if the stars align, and McConnell, for all his power and sway, is actually very unpopular in his home state. A definite long shot, but not wholly out of range.

Friday, May 15, 2020

"Can We Survive Four More Years?"

If you'd asked me a month ago where Democrats were better positioned, Florida or North Carolina, I'd have taken the unconventional bet and said North Carolina. The Tarheel State is growing in exactly the way that Democrats are poised to exploit in the new south -- suburban, well-educated -- and Democrats did well there in 2018. By contrast, Florida still is anchored by its aging retiree population -- Trump's prime demographic -- and it was the state which most resisted the blue tide in the last midterm.

Today, a new poll dropped in each state, putting Biden up six in Florida and Trump up three in North Carolina. It's easy to cherry-pick polls, but it's also the case that the coronavirus response may be seriously eroding Trump's support among seniors. The conventional wisdom is that Democrats win by goosing youth and young professional turnout, and there's a lot to be said for that strategy. But if Democrats can crack the senior vote, especially given their high turnout figures? It might be game over for Trump. It's hard to see much of a electoral college route for him without Florida.

The frankly death-cultist response of Trump and the GOP response to the coronavirus provides a huge opening. Obviously, Democrats are already running ads on this. But I think they've got ammo they're not using. Of course there's the clip of Trump calling the virus a "hoax" -- use that, and plenty of other Trump quotes to go along with it. Place alongside the "sacrifice the weak" poster. Place it alongside Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick urging seniors to "take a chance on your survival." Place it alongside Ben Shapiro saying, hey, 80 years old is pretty good life lived already, right? Build a crushing, suffocating narrative that's nothing more than the truth: Donald Trump and the Republican Party are willing to let seniors die.

The ammo is there to make that the story. And with it, the key question that should frame the 2020 election -- for all of us, but especially America's seniors must be asking -- is straightforward: "Can we survive four more years?"

Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Explicit Mizrahi Zionism and the California Ethnic Studies Curriculum

In Jewish Currents, Gabi Kirk has a long piece on the antisemitism controversy over the California Ethnic Studies curriculum (last year I wrote on the matter here). It's a wide-ranging issue and a wide-ranging essay, but (in keeping with my prior contribution) I want to focus on the specific issue of Sephardic/Mizrahi inclusion.*

Here is what Kirk says when she reaches that angle of the story:
Complaints about the [proposed Ethnic Studies Model Curriculum] aren’t coming solely from white Ashkenazi Jews; Sephardic and Mizrahi Jewish groups have also claimed the curriculum leaves out their experiences. Jews Indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa (JIMENA)—which is also an explicitly Zionist group—claimed in multiple letters to the CDE that the draft ESMC “portray[s] Arabs as a homogenous, Muslim group,” and “excludes and erases the experiences, perspectives, and voices of diverse Middle Eastern communities.” (JIMENA did not respond to requests for comment for this piece.) California is home to a large Mizrahi Jewish population; Los Angeles is home to the largest Iranian-Jewish population in the US. 
Have you fixated on one word in a passage, and just felt it inexorably press layers of meaning onto you? That's me with "explicitly" (as in JIMENA is "also an explicitly Zionist group").

Throughout Kirk's essay, the Jewish organizations criticizing the draft ethnic studies curriculum were pretty much always referred to as "Jewish Zionist". Nobody was ever referred to as "anti-Zionist" -- only the Zionists needed the perpetual modifier attached to them. It's the Zionists versus the unmarked neutrals. But of all the groups mentioned -- from the AJC to the ADL to AMCHA -- only JIMENA was "explicitly Zionist".**

And I started wondering -- why explicitly? What was that word doing? How was JIMENA explicitly Zionist in a way its peers were not? To be sure, JIMENA is Zionist in the same way that most Jewish organizations are, in the same way that most Jews are. I'm quite familiar with them, and I know what role Zionism plays in their organizational orientation. JIMENA is an organization that was formed to represent the interests and the stories of Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish refugees whose communities in the Arab and Muslim world were decimated in the decades surrounding the establishment of Israel. It is Zionist because (a) most of the community it represents is Zionist and (b) in its estimation, its mission and values are furthered through some iteration of Zionism. But Zionism is not its raison d'etre. It does not even appear in JIMENA's "About" section.

One would be hard pressed to explain how JIMENA is notably "explicit" in its Zionism in a way that, say, the AJC is not. And what would "non-explicit" Zionism look like? If it's not "explicit", is it "covert"? "Hidden"? It starts to look pretty lose-lose, pretty quickly.

The almost assured truth is that the word "explicitly", here, is redundant in terms of cognitive content. It is not actually meant to distinguish JIMENA from the AJC; it does not add information. Its purpose is more affective -- meant to convey a mood of danger, or of shamelessness. It reads like an "explicit lyrics" stamp slapped on an album: these Jews need a warning label. It's similar to how one sometimes sees groups or speakers called "openly" or "avowedly" Zionist. Taken literally, one might ask "as opposed to?" But the purpose of the modifier isn't really to add new content as it is to tut at the brazenness of it all. How very dare they. These are not respectable Jews. They flaunt. If there is a reason why "explicitly" got attached to JIMENA in particular, it was as a red flag for the unwary reader who might otherwise be inclined to credit the worries of the Mizrahi community.

There is something that I think is worth saying about the manner in which the Zionism of Mizrahi Jews is often cast and denigrated in these tones -- as brazen, audacious, flamboyant, even obscene. It's late, and I'm tired, and others can pick this ball up if they want to. But it is something I've noticed before, and I was not surprised to see it here.

* There's a separate issue burbling up regarding a column on this issue written by a certain disgraced Jewish journalist in the Jewish Journal. I have no desire to give this writer any more attention, so I'll just say that the disgraced journalist is disgraced for a reason and that it's a further disgrace that they are still being published in respectable outlets.

** Though the letter was hosted on JIMENA's website, it actually had ten other co-signatories, all California-based Sephardic/Mizrahi Jewish organizations including five synagogues. They go unmentioned in Kirk's essay (are they "explicitly" Zionist too -- whatever that means?). By comparison, in the next paragraph Kirk contrasts JIMENA's letter with "others [who] trace the difficulty of imparting Mizrahi history to Zionism itself." The link goes to an essay hosted by Jewish Voice for Peace (a far more "explicitly" anti-Zionist organization than JIMENA is "explicitly" Zionist) and was signed by two people, one of whom lives in Indiana. Nonetheless, Kirk spends roughly twice as much time on (and extends much more sympathy to) the analysis of this duo. That later in the essay she quotes a proponent of the draft ethnic studies curriculum complaining about "tokenizing" is more than a little rich.

Monday, May 11, 2020

Are We Back To This Again?

Tablet Magazine has a new 2,500 word essay comparing the antisemitic dangers of Black Nationalism to that of White Supremacy.

Is it novel? No. It's the same basic set of arguments about Black antisemitism everyone in the Jewish community has heard (and heard, and heard) approximately infinity times since 2015. It contributes absolutely nothing new to the topic. Misty-eyed reminiscence on (now more than a half-century old) Jewish contributions to the Civil Rights movement? Check. Cherry-picked anecdotes of a few hateful college lectures decades in the past? Check. Earnest equivalence between these lectures and Tiki Marchers in Charlottesville? Check. The only thing surprising about it is that Liel Leibovitz wasn't the author.

Is it timely? No. There's no effort to provide any serious topical hook; there's nothing in the news cycle that appears to have prompted it. It comes effectively out of nowhere. At least when I wrote about Tony Martin (a) it was prompted by a personal experience and (b) he hadn't been dead for seven years. This feels like someone just really missed the good old days where one could publish a "Black antisemitism -- the new threat to the Jews!" column every week. Some people miss the normalcy of going to the gym; some miss the normalcy of obsessing over Black antisemitism. To-may-to to-mah-to.

Is it good? No. It is absolutely possible to write a good piece about Black antisemitism. Adam Serwer had a great one in The Atlantic. And I'd be fascinated to hear Michael Twitty more fully speak on the dynamic he encountered here, if he were so inclined. But the hallmark of a bad piece on Black antisemitism is when it acts as if Black antisemitism drives the broader antisemitic environment Jews face on a global level. The shoals to avoid are very similar to those if one writes on "Jewish Racism" (and indeed, on my desk I have a book titled Black Anti-Semitism and Jewish Racism). Are there important things to say on the subject? Yes, absolutely. But there's a huge difference between noting that there are Jews who are racist and writing as if Jewish racism drives contemporary racism (in the U.S. or globally) on a level that is at par with or exceeds White supremacy. The latter is what crosses into antisemitic territory.

And indeed, ironically this is often exactly the sin that exemplifies how some Black nationalists cross into antisemitic territory -- they present Jews as at the center of or guiding the practice of racism in America. The problem isn't that there aren't Jews who are racist, the problem is presenting that iteration of racism in a fashion wholly out of proportion to its actually tangible impact. Yet that lesson somehow is lost when running yet another "Black antisemitism is just as central as White supremacy" column.

How does an essay like this get published? It's not that it's the worst thing Tablet has ever run (my podium for that event would probably include Anna Breslaw's "Nazis were right: Some of us are Jewhsit", Alexander Zubatov's defense of the "Cultural Marxism" slur, and this Leibovitz classic), but it is one of the more pointless. It's not original, it's not timely, it's not prompted by anything, it's just -- there. Gratuitously stirring up trouble for no reason other than it can.

Friday, May 08, 2020

Educate Me: Markey vs. Kennedy

Massachusetts Rep. Joe Kennedy (D) is challenging incumbent Senator Ed Markey (also D) in a primary. Recent polling suggests Kennedy is ahead.

Can someone explain to me why this primary is happening? From what I can tell, Markey and Kennedy have relatively similar views. Markey is a staunch progressive, but Kennedy is not challenging him from the center. There's no scandal I know of in Markey's file either. It seems that the motive for Kennedy's challenge is nothing more than "I want to be a bigger deal than I am now", which is not exactly the most inspiring rallying cry for a primary campaign. Yet he seems to be winning. Is it just the magic of the Kennedy name in Massachusetts?

I have a pretty high bar for supporting primary challenges against Democratic incumbents,* and things like "we need a fresh face" or "generational change" virtually never qualify. If there's anything to Kennedy's challenge other than an ego trip, I'd love to hear it.

* Recent examples of challenges that passed this bar include Marie Newman over Dan Lipinski and Jessica Cisneros taking on Henry Cuellar.

Sunday, May 03, 2020

Performing Solidarity Anxiety in the Jewish Community

The other day, prominent Hasidic Jewish representatives published a defense of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio. The letter emphasized their community's generally strong relationship with de Blasio as well as their commitment to observing social distancing protocols. It expressed a desire to "disavow the attacks and derogatory language against our mayor, from people from outside the community and from reckless people among us."

De Blasio had come under fire after tweeting a message to the "Jewish community" lambasting the failure to adhere to social distancing requirements after a large Hasidic funeral drew crowds in the city streets. This message was viewed as unduly singling out Jews in general and Hasidic Jews in particular as violators of social distancing requirements, when in reality this was an isolated incident which one could find parallels among New Yorkers of all stripes. Until this letter, the hostile response to de Blasio was one of the great unifiers in the Jewish community -- which made it all the more striking that the defense of de Blasio came from the segment of the community that the rest of us were nominally trying to stand up for. What's going on?

Well, many things, in all likelihood. But one thing I suspect we're seeing is a form of solidarity anxiety -- the desire to be (and be seen as) an ally to a given community without possessing the sort of deep connections to it that generate knowledge regarding what would actually be seen as allyship.  In these circumstances, one grasps onto high profile events or causes that seem like an opportunity to demonstrate solidarity, but in doing so one often imputes assumptions or stereotypes regarding what one imagines the interests of the group to be that are at best oversimplified and at worst flat wrong. Something like this, I think, is at work in the recent finding that White Democrats were more likely to be "bothered" that the Democratic nominee was a White man than non-White Democrats. It's important to White Democrats that they present themselves as allies to People of Color, and expressing concern about nominating a White guy seems like a decent way to effectuate such a presentation -- even as, it turns out, non-White Democrats aren't especially motivated by the question.*

Among Jews, there was already some tension among non-Ultra Orthodox Jews facing accusations that they were insufficiently concerned with street violence faced by their Ultra Orthodox peers in New York City (ironically, not all but certainly some of those accusations were also being leveled by non-Orthodox actors who themselves were seeking to perform a sort of solidarity anxiety -- often by wrongfully assuming aggressive attacks on "Black antisemitism" were the way the ultra-Orthodox wished solidarity to be expressed). I think that background is germane to how the broader Jewish community responded to this case -- it was an opportunity to get loud and be clear in support of their Hasidic fellows.

In particular, I don't think it was wrong for non-Hasidic Jews to view de Blasio as having done something worthy of condemnation. But I think there was a race to a further assumption that de Blasio was in general viewed as a disliked or hostile figure among the Hasidic community such that piling on him would be viewed as inherently solidaristic. Turns out, not so much.

* Though I do think there is one possible wrinkle I'd be curious to look into: whether non-White Democrats -- regardless of whether they personally are unruffled by the nominee being a White man, look any more or less favorably at White Democrats who purport to be similarly unconcerned. The most straight-forward hypothesis is that it'd have at worst no effect -- after all, the White Democrats are taking the same position they are. But I can imagine a line of thinking where even if they themselves are unperturbed by the nominee being White POCs might find it suspicious for White people to too readily agree -- because, for example, certain racial dispositions that the POCs feel comfortable in assuming in their own case can't be taken for granted among White actors.

Saturday, May 02, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Never Have I Ever

Never Have I Ever is a show so good, the protagonist can tell a Jewish teenager she wishes he was killed by the Nazis and still be relatable.

The protagonist is Devi Vishwakuma; the line is delivered to her academic arch-rival Ben Gross. It is not deserved -- Ben is certainly a jerk (though he evolves as the season progresses, and honestly Devi isn't really any better than he is), but not anywhere close to where it would be even remotely acceptable to wish genocide upon him. There's nothing cathartic about it, no "well that might have been a bit much, but ...." Devi just said something terrible, hurtful, offensive, and self-destructive. And yet, she's still relatable.

This is a very hard feat to manage. Television is still reckoning with its era of the anti-hero, and after an array of male leads who were meant to be protagonists even as they constantly made terrible and callous choices (e.g.: Mad Men, The Sopranos), the latest trend seems to be female anti-heroes who are by no means one-dimensional villains but certainly mistreat friends and evade responsibilities with seemingly cavalier abandon (e.g.: Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Killing Eve),  These shows are interesting because they explore personalities and inner conflicts that other shows don't. But it's supremely difficult to keep the audience onboard with a main character who just makes relentlessly bad and unlikable choices. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- and to be clear, I loved Crazy Ex-Girlfriend -- really wavered while walking this line. Never Have I Ever manages it better than maybe any show I've ever seen.

At the show's opening, Devi is returning to high school a year after her father suddenly died at her orchestra concert, and all she wants is for this year to be better than last. If Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a comedy that just under the surface is an exploration of mental illness, Never Have I Ever is a comedy that just under the surface is an exploration of grief. Devi, played outstandingly by Maitreyi Ramakrishnan in her first role, is clearly still traumatized by her father's passing. And that trauma manifests mostly by her being very, very angry. Devi is trying to suppress her emotions, but she often lashes out -- sometimes to real stimuli, yet often way out of proportion to what is remotely reasonable. Breaking a window with her textbook upon finding out that her best friend has a boyfriend she never told her about, for example. Or responding to a bit of smug condescension by her bitter rival by announcing she wished he had been exterminated, for another.

Ramakrishnan deserves a ton of credit for immediately establishing Devi so that this anger feels authentic -- it isn't drama for drama's sake, and it isn't one-note either. It's how this teenager would be responding to this trauma she's trying to work through (or avoid working through, as the case may be). That she's a teenager certainly helps: she doesn't have to always make smart or likable choices. She's a teenager! They screw up -- usually under far less emotionally taxing circumstances than these. Devi, it is alluded to, was by no means a perfect child before her dad died. She was stubborn and headstrong and a bit too invested in being the highest achiever in her grade. But in the end, she's a regular kid with regular teenage struggles and stresses who just took one emotional punch too many, and now is in a spiral. And that is certainly relatable.

Devi is such a strong lead character that I haven't even gotten into the superb supporting cast that surrounds her, virtually all of whom feel like fully-realized and lived-in characters. These include the aforementioned arch-rival, her two best friends, the popular boy whose the object of Devi's affections, and her older cousin with an American boyfriend and an impending arranged marriage (it's not really a love triangle, she explains, "It's more of a line with a dot if you're really going to graph it."). The most important is Devi's mother, who is a strict immigrant parent insisting on nothing short of the Ivy League and no dating until Devi is in her twenties. If these sound like pretty standard rom-com archetypes, they are -- which makes it all the more impressive how the show gives them each a fresh spin. I could quibble with some character choices around the edges, but they're really not worth the time. The show works, and it works well.

Oh, and John McEnroe is surprisingly strong as the narrative (yes, there's a reason for it, and yes, it makes at least enough sense to justify the conceit).

Should you PlagueWatch it? Definitely. Jill and I binged all ten episodes in one night. Never Have I Ever is very, very good.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Tupac Lives!

By now you've probably heard about this story. Basically, Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear called a press conference to complain about people filing for unemployment benefits under fake names -- a practice which slowed down processing for real Kentuckyians facing real needs. The example he gave was a guy named "Tupac Shakur" -- obvious fake, right? Wrong. There is a real Tupac Shakur living in Kentucky (though presumably not the Tupac Shakur) who really filed for unemployment benefits. Upon learning this, Beshear called the real Tupac to apologize. And Tupac accepted, saying "I understand, he’s dealing with a lot. Mistakes happen."

There isn't really anything substantive worth saying about this. The reason I'm writing is because the story seemed like a rare instance of everybody involved being nice and reasonable.

  • Gov. Beshear was reasonable in thinking the name "Tupac Shakur" was fake.
  • The actual person with that name was reasonably embarrassed to be called out like that.
  • Beshear, upon realizing his mistake, called Mr. Shakur to apologize.
  • Shakur graciously accepted the apology.
Really, I can't ask for much more from either of them. Mistakes happen, apologies are made, people are understanding. It was just nice. And sometimes I like focusing on nice.

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Should I PlagueWatch It?: Making the Cut

As many of you know, I've been a Project Runway fan for years. The show made Tim Gunn a household name and elevated Heidi Klum to perhaps an unprecedented level of international stardom. But in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein scandal (Project Runway was in his portfolio -- recall Georgina Chapman's presence on the All-Stars seasons), they decided to leap to a new project. The result was Amazon Prime's own take on the fashion design challenge show Making the Cut, which just wrapped its first season (meanwhile, Karlie Kloss has made for a surprisingly strong Heidi replacement on the OG PR).

If you're a Project Runway loyalist, the show won't be anything too groundbreaking. The main differences are:

Ultimately, the show is entertaining but still groping a bit for its identity. Certain elements -- like having the judges come to preliminary decisions on eliminations but be open to changing their minds after "a conversation" -- felt forced (and rarely resulted in any changes). The focus on building a brand was harped on in rhetoric but wasn't always made clear in practice. And they had to replace all their catchphrases --  as an aside, how awkward must it be for Heidi that "goodbye" in German is now apparently off-limits for her? (Even sadder: no more "make it work" from Tim!).

On the other hand, the Heid and Tim segments were great, and Nicole Richie stood out as a really incisive judge -- so good on her.

Should you PlagueWatch it? If you like Project Runway, you'll definitely enjoy this show. But it offers nothing new for those who aren't already onboard. Think of it as the wealthier spin-off of Project Runway that it effectively is -- if that idea appeals to you, go for it. If not, skip.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Mike Huckabee Threatens the Jews (Again)

The Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, an umbrella group representing (as the name implies) many of the most significant Jewish groups in the US,* recently nominated Dianne Lob to be its new chair. Lob was most recently chairwoman of HIAS, a Jewish immigrant rights advocacy group and a mainstay of progressive Jewish politics that has taken a leading role in opposing President Trump's draconian and racist anti-immigrant policies. Sadly, many people came to know HIAS because they were the specific Jewish organization that Pittsburgh shooter was fixated upon in "justification" for his massacre. He hated HIAS for doing what it has done for years -- assist needy refugees in securing a safe and thriving home in America. Hence, in my quick thoughts on Jewish organizations, all I wrote on HIAS was "If you don't like HIAS, you're a monster."

Of course, the world is full of monsters. And one of them is former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee, who, despite not being Jewish, decided he was in a position to dictate to Jews who our institutional representatives should be.

For "their own sake". Subtle.

Huckabee has a habit of expressing his great affinity for the Jews in the form of veiled threats and antisemitic jabs. For example, when he was criticized by the ADL for comparing failing to confront the national debt to the Holocaust (speaking of Holocaust trivialization!), did he apologize? No. He lashed out, darkly warning that "Israel and Jewish people need to make friends, not insult the ones they have." (The ADL, spinelessly, then apologized to Huckabee). He's complained that American Jews just aren't as supportive of Israel as evangelical Christians. He even spread a baseless conspiracy theory that antisemitic grafitti in Chicago was actually the false flag work of left-wing Jewish students seeking to smear Donald Trump -- a grotesque smear on which he doubled-down when challenged.

The arrogance Huckabee is displaying (and I haven't even gotten into the idea that American Jewish organizations should choose their leadership based on fealty to Netanyahu) is both astounding and par for the course. Even if he hadn't repeatedly demonstrated his contempt for the American Jewish majority he still wouldn't be entitled to pick our leaders. American Jews are not his serfs, and we do not run scared from his brand of thuggish intimidation.

Meanwhile, ZOA -- which already has gotten a warning from the COP regarding its inability to play nicely with others -- jumped into the fray to not just oppose Lob's nomination as chairwoman, but to suggest that HIAS should be expelled from the COP outright. When you're outflanking Dani frickin' Dayan from the right....

Huckabee and ZOA deserve each other, but the Jewish community deserves better than either. I hope Lob is welcomed into her new role, and that her ascension begins the important process of healing some very real rifts that have grown between the American Jewish community and an appointed leadership which has taken actual, mainstream progressive Jews for granted for too long.

* Though this can be a bit misleading. Some legacy organizations that once were prominent but today are basically shells remain members, and other important groups of more recent vintage have been denied membership notwithstanding their prominence -- J Street being the obvious example.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Holocaust Trivialization Leads To Holocaust Mockery

A recent news story reports on two Minnesota high school students who released a TikTok video titled "Me and the boys on the way to camp." It was making fun of the Holocaust.

Elsewhere in the country, Republican and conservative leaders have gotten very trigger-happy comparing coronavirus restrictions to the Holocaust. An Idaho state representative insisted that stay-at-home measures were "no different" than Hitler sending Jews to extermination camps. The Colorado House Minority Leader said that Governor Jared Polis' (who is Jewish) efforts reflected a "Gestapo-like mentality".  We all saw the pictures of right-wing protesters in Michigan holding signs saying "Heil Witmer" [sic] with a swastika on them (referring to Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer). There are other examples.

These are not the same thing. But they are related. The latter is a form of Holocaust trivialization, where it gets employed in opposition to political moves that fall clearly and obviously short of concentration camps and mass extermination.* The effect of Holocaust trivialization is to make the Holocaust utterly ordinary and mundane; unremarkable save for how it can pack an emotional punch in ordinary and mundane political debates. And once the Holocaust is ordinary and mundane, one can do ordinary, mundane things with. Leverage it in attack ads. Use it as a bit of effective (if perhaps hyperbolic) rhetoric. And, of course, mock it. Ordinary and mundane events in the political sphere are legitimate subjects of parody and mockery. It is the Holocaust's status as something distinct from the ordinary, in a separate class, that justifies keep it insulated from such insults. Take that away, and why shouldn't it get its share of snipes and jabs? There is a direct line from trivializing the Holocaust to mocking it. The kids in Minnesota and the elected officials in the GOP are not doing the same thing -- but there is a familial lineage.

The past few years have seen the GOP talk a very big game about what great friends they are the Jews. They say it every election season, of course, and they always put on such a display of hurt and confusion when that friendship isn't reciprocated. Well, here's part of the reason why. Given the slightest opportunity, they'll cheapen our genocide in service of a destructive, paranoid, and frankly inane political agenda. They won't care in the slightest the damage it does to the Jewish community. Hell, I doubt they even notice it. But we do.

* Here is what I wrote, incidentally, on comparisons of  immigrant detention camps in the U.S. to the Holocaust. I did not and do not like them, though in that case at the very least there is non-frivolous basis for the comparison (though not on the axis of systematic extermination) which made me feel as if litigating the comparison was of subsidiary importance to keeping our eye on opposing the underlying policy. By contrast, there is no remotely plausible basis for comparing stay-at-home protocols aimed at fighting a pandemic to Nazism. It can do nothing but trivialize the Holocaust.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

The Wisconsin Supreme Court Upset

Liberal challenger Jill Karofsky ousted conservative incumbent Justice Daniel Kelly, slicing the right-wing majority on the court to a 4-3 margin. The race was heated because state Republicans insisted that it must go on as scheduled in spite of the coronavirus epidemic making voting positively dangerous, then fought tooth-and-nail to make sure as many absentee ballots went uncounted as possible (they got an assist from the U.S. Supreme Court on that one). All this notwithstanding, Karofsky ending up winning by 10 points -- a frankly crushing margin given the history of Wisconsin statewide races and the fact that she was a narrow underdog. Some of the county data coming from this race -- Karofsky winning Kenosha County, for instance -- will undoubtedly make state Republicans very nervous about November (and it should).

For his part, Justice Kelly is best known around these parts for authoring perhaps the worst argument I've ever seen against affirmative action. It managed to standout for incompetence even in the hyper-competitive "comparing racial justice measures to slavery" arena, which truly is something.

Of course, the person Kelly replaced literally tried to choke out one of her colleagues, so he still might have been a step up given who came before. Fascinating place, the Wisconsin Supreme Court is. Anyway, I fully expect Judge Karofsky to continue that positive momentum and be a force for good and the rule-of-law in her tenure on the Court.

Sunday, April 12, 2020

What We Owe To Each Other: Democratic Unity Edition

The vast majority of Bernie Sanders primary voters intend to vote for Joe Biden in the general. Indeed, it isn't even all that begrudging: a majority of Sanders supporters view Joe Biden favorably. It is easy to be mislead by a loud, raucous, but ultimately small online minority.

Still, as the primary season concludes and we pivot to the general, we are seeing claims and counterclaims from the erstwhile Sanders and Biden camps regarding what each one now expects from the other. Sanders backers are demanding to be courted and that their vote be "earned". Bidenites are crowing about how they won and that anyone who doesn't back Joe come November is a fascist enabler.

As it stands, this is not a productive conversation. But as we emerge from another harsh primary, we should be think about what we owe each other in the service of unity and making Trump a one term president.

To that end, I suggest the following things we can reasonably expect out of each camp:

From Biden Supporters

  1. Do not promote the baseline expectation that Sanders voters will not end up voting for Biden in November. For one, as noted above it's not true. For two, it tends to create its own reality--the more the message is communicated that there is a gaping rift between Sanders voters and Biden voters, the more it becomes the truth. The more rhetoric we put out in the world that communicates mistrust and suspicion, the more the relationship will be characterized by mistrust and suspicion.
  2. Following on that, treat everyone who voted in the Democratic primary -- no matter for which candidate -- as being presumptively all on the same team, with everyone's contributions welcome.
  3. Do not gloat. Do not crow. Do not take joy in the defeat of Sanders or his faction. I don't care if it's to someone who two months ago was telling you to "bend the knee". Don't do it.
  4. Promote those elements of the Democratic platform that demonstrate the influence of the progressive wing and common ground within the party. This is a good example. Use it as outreach to the extent Sanders backers say they want an affirmative reason to vote for Biden. Things like paid family leave, universal healthcare with a public option, rejoining the Paris Accords, and the $15 minimum wage are all part of the Biden campaign now, and we should credit progressive activists for laying the foundation that made those mainstream in the Democratic Party.
  5. Do not run against Sanders. The primary is over. There is no good reason, particularly given whom Biden is running against, for why Biden or his supporters should engage in any performative hippie-punching.
  6. Nominate a VP who reasonably will be perceived as extending an olive branch to the Sanders faction. It doesn't have to be Nina Turner (and in fact it almost assuredly should not and will not be). But Stacey Abrams remains a good choice. There are, presumably, others. But don't double-down on a "moderate".

From Sanders Supporters

  1. Vote for Biden. Obviously. That's starkly put, but there really isn't room for hedging or caveating around this.
  2. Don't publicly mope about it. We know he wasn't your first (or likely, third) choice. But public expressions of sourness and unhappiness are contagious and depress turnout, and the corollary of "vote for Biden" is "do what you can to make sure Biden wins the race". Think of it this way: the only thing worse than having to vote for Biden to become President is having to vote for Biden and Trump still being President anyway.
  3. Following on the above: find something to be enthusiastic and cheerful about. It doesn't have to be Biden himself. It can be "Trump doesn't replace RBG". It can be the $15 minimum wage. It can be something else. Worst case scenario -- fake it. But find something, anything, that you can be passionate about that compliments the agenda of electing Joe Biden
  4. Do not impose "conditions" on your vote that boil down to "Biden must become Sanders". Instead, look for the elements of Biden's platform that are most likely to be harmonious with or complimentary to Sanders agenda, and focus on locking those down.
  5. Biden is the consummate party man -- his instincts are to do whatever is the conventional wisdom of the median Democrat. Take advantage of that by making your agenda items part of that conventional wisdom. It won't all happen at once, but there is a lot of room for real progress here.
  6. Do not look for reasons why efforts at outreach from the Biden camp are dishonest, disingenuous, or otherwise insufficient. Politics is the strong and slow boring of hard boards. Collect the carrots offered and lay the groundwork so that they can be cashed in come 2021.

On a lighter note, the need for Democrats to be cheerful and enthusiastic and united and optimistic brought to mind some old Boondocks comic strips way back from 2004.

Thursday, April 09, 2020

Bernie Drops Out

Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the 2020 presidential race.

There are half a million commentators on this, covering every possible niche, so I'll just focus on one thing.

Bernie Sanders was Jewish. And his presence at the highest echelon of American politics mattered to us.

This might surprise some, because a commonly-expressed sentiment on segments of the Twitterati was that the actual Jewish community didn't trust or even hated Sanders. That's simply not true. Sanders may not have been the first choice candidate of Jewish voters, but his favorability ratings were still net positive. He had many passionate supporters in the Jewish community, and even those of us who didn't back him in the primary still would have overwhelmingly checked his name had he have been the 2020 nominee. One of my main regrets that he didn't win the nomination is that we will never have true occasion to return to this bookmarked tweet.

The far worse claim was that Sanders was not even a "real Jew" or a "Jew in Name Only". This was nothing short of grotesque. Like many of my co-religionists, I saw Bernie's Jewishness clear as day. The mannerisms, the accent, the passion, even the democratic socialist politics: these all rang perfectly familiar as evoking Jewishness -- of a particular kind, yes, but no less distinctive. One can have legitimate grievances with particular surrogates or spokespersons; one can wish he had been more vocally Jewish (although for me his voice is one of the most Jewish things about him) for longer. But it's also the case that he wrote one of the better meditations on Jewishness, antisemitism, and politics that I've seen from any politician.

It is fair to say that Bernie Sanders does not reflect the preferences of the median American Jews. But if one says that, then one must be equally forthright in saying that hating Bernie Sanders is also unreflective of the median American Jew. It is a crude caricature of identity politics that suggests it means complete blind allegiance to anyone and everyone who happens to share your faith or your phenotype. What it actually means is far more nuanced. I didn't have to agree with Sanders on everything -- I didn't even have to vote for him in the primary -- to be proud that he was running and proud for what his successes meant for my community.

And I am proud. He was and is a valuable member of my community. I thank him, and wish him nothing but the best.

Sunday, April 05, 2020

Can Sir Keir Starmer Turn the Page for Labour and the Jews?

The UK Labour Party has chosen its next leader to replace Jeremy Corbyn. Sir Keir Starmer won decisively in the first round of balloting, beating Corbyn's favored successor Rebecca Long-Bailey and back-bencher Lisa Nandy. Starmer was seen as a moderate candidate who nonetheless ran as a unifier, appealing to groups (including many Jews) alienated by Corbyn's hard-left politics while not actively assailing his predecessor.

So -- what does this mean for the UK Jewish community, and its deeply fraught relationship with the nation's main left-of-center party?

The tone is cautiously optimistic -- and I think justifiably so.

The Jewish Labour Movement -- Labour's main Jewish affiliate, and a true warhorse in fighting Labour antisemitism over the past few years -- endorsed Lisa Nandy in this race, but Starmer came in a very strong second and obviously carried significant support. Starmer, whose wife is Jewish and has relatives who live in Israel, took part in a striking moment where he and every other Labour leadership candidate (even Corbynista Long-Bailey) characterized themselves as either "Zionist" or someone who "supports Zionism". Upon his election, his first act was to apologize to the Jewish community for antisemitism in the Labour Party and said he will "'judge [the] success [of his leadership] by the return of Jewish members."

These gestures have been welcomed by the Jewish community, albeit with the reasonable caveat that actions will speak louder than words. Indeed -- but that does not mean the words are not welcome.

What I will say is that Starmer absolutely deserves a chance. These past few years have been rough, and have left scars. They will not heal overnight. There is legitimate basis for mistrust. But healing requires some amount of trust, and of patience. Starmer's victory was decisive, and we're already seeing additional key parts of the party apparatus swing towards "his" people and away from the Corbynista old guard. Still, things will take time and there almost certainly will not be a highly public purge or bloodbath of Corbyn loyalists. I do not think that such a purge is per se necessary for Labour to right ship. Slow, steady leadership, partnerships, open communication, and rebuilding connections may not offer the visceral satisfaction of someone putting Seamus Milne's head on a spike -- but it might ultimately offer a better route forward in the long run.

The risk of the past few years is that they've created wounds that can never heal, because nothing that can be done going forward can undo the hurts of the past. Last year I wrote the following:
British Jews are angry at Labour, and they're by no means unreasonable to feel that way -- I've been quite vocal in calling out the disgusting cesspool of antisemitism that has taken over the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn's watch. That's legitimately anger-inducing. And one could even argue that Jewish anger about this has played a significant role in forcing Labour to come to the table and take what (meager) steps it has taken to tackle antisemitism in its ranks.

But I also worry that this anger and bitterness has gotten so deep that it's almost impossible to imagine any set of steps by which Jews and Labour might reconcile. Even when Labour officials do issue statements or take steps that seem genuinely positive as expressions of the importance of tackling antisemitism, the mistrust runs so thick that they're often immediately rejected -- "what good is this statement or that commitment coming from so-and-so, who's been so terrible to us in the past?"

I'm not saying that these statements or commitments will always be followed through on or even that they're always offered in good faith. I'm saying it almost doesn't seem to matter any more, the efforts that are offered in good faith and would be followed through on are swept away just as decisively by the omnipresent feeling of woundedness and mistrust. At a certain level, what Jewish anger wants out of Labour is for it to have never done such awful things in the first place. But there's nothing Labour can promise to satisfy that demand -- and so the anger can never be placated. And that, ultimately, can only lead us to a destructive place, where Jews and the left must be enemies, because there is no longer anything that can be said or done that is interpreted to be a gesture of friendship (even the most perfectly worded statement can be dismissed as a front or a guise, or insufficient given past sins).
These feelings of woundedness are still present, and if left unattended they could make even a good faith effort by Starmer to rebuild the relationship between Labour and the Jewish community impossible.

So that's my plea -- don't give into that type of bitterness. I'm not saying give Starmer a free pass. I am saying give him a real chance. And the most difficult part of giving someone a real chance is acknowledging and accepting that -- as legitimate as the Jewish community's grievances are -- things will never be fully put to right; yet still, we must move forward.

Friday, April 03, 2020

If You're One in a Million...

Many of you are familiar with the saying "If you're one in a million, there are a thousand people just like you in China alone."

It helps illustrate that while one in a million is certainly very rare, on another way of looking it at it's also quite common. A thousand people! You could fill a high school gymnasium with that!

Push the proportion down a bit and things get even more stark. Imagine a political view held by only 1% of the population. That's pretty fringe, right (for reference, 33% of Americans believe that alien UFOs have visited Earth)? But it's also one in a hundred -- in America, that translates to well over three million people. That's a lot! (We explored this dynamic previously in my "how to tokenize with proportions" post.)

One thing I often think about is how modernity and modern technology, in conjunction with our decidedly pre-modern lizard-brains, don't always mesh well. We know, for example, that fat tastes delicious because in the primordial environment it was rare and vital, and thus highly desirable to consume -- unfortunately, this doesn't translate well to a contemporary context where calories and fat are plentiful and we can easily over-saturate ourselves.

I suspect there's something similar going on with political opinions. One of the oft-proclaimed virtues of the internet is it allows you to find communities of like-minded persons no matter how obscure or random the interest. Obsessed with underwater basketweaving? You can find dozens of people who share that passion with minimal effort!

What does it mean when the same is true for political opinions? I suspect our brains have a rough heuristic at the ready that correlates how difficult it is to find holders of a given opinion with how uncommon it is in society. If one struggles to come across individuals who believe ideology X, one assumes that X is rarely believed in a given society. If one comes across X-believers without too much trouble, one infers that X is a common ideology. If 1% of Americans hold a particular political stance, that may be three million people -- but (at least until recently) they're not going to be easy to find via the normal modes of political engagement. If you just read newspaper columns, chatted with your neighbors, watched TV pundits, and so forth, you'd probably come across it rarely, if ever. If one really wanted to find a sizable chunk of Americans who believe this 1% view, one would have to expend considerably more effort.

Now to be clear: what I'm describing is only a heuristic, which means it's imperfect -- there are all sorts of reasons why, for example, a rare opinion might nonetheless be easy to spot "in the wild" (it's favored among extroverts or celebrities, e.g.) or a common one might be rarely seen (it's embarrassing). But it has some logic as a rough-and-ready way of telling us which views are common in our social circle and which aren't. It's not quite the same as the availability heuristic, but it is similar. Call it the search heuristic. Something easy to find upon commencing a search for it is common; something hard to find even when searching for it is rare.

The problem is that if modern technology makes pretty much any opinion with even a speck of public salience "easy to find", that hijacks our heuristic circuitry to make all of these opinions register in our minds as "commonplace". What is the result of that?

One potentially positive result is that it might offset some mechanisms that serve to silence dissident views via the so-called "spiral of silence" -- they learn that they're not alone, and so they're more willing to air their dissident views knowing that there are peers who share their perspective.

But there are also some potential upshots that I'm more ambivalent about. One thing that we might experience is the erosion of perceived consensus -- a sense of widespread opinion balkanization and a corresponding vertiginous inability to tell when there is an opinion that carries significant social agreement. There's a push/pull on this -- sometimes, a feeling of "consensus" is dependent on wrongly not perceiving the existence of dissent, and so the elevation of dissident voices corrects a widespread social misperception. But, assuming "consensus" does not require universal agreement, sometimes, a feeling of dissensus is falsely inspired by the presence of high-profile but ultimately negligible dissenters. To the extent that modern technology makes very small ideological minorities loom larger, we might believe ourselves to be far more disunited than we actually are. And if the search heuristic causes a wide range of opinions (many mutually incompatible with one another) to register as "common", we may have trouble grasping onto distinctions between actually common versus fringe outlooks.

In a similar vein, it is at least plausible that in a democracy there is a prima facie obligation to consider and give airing to certain viewpoints simply by virtue of the fact that they're common. This wouldn't necessarily mean that uncommon views can be automatically rejected, only that they must "earn" their space on the democratic agenda by means other than "because many people believe it". If this is so, then the perception that more views are "common" mean that more views can claim access to this prima facie obligation of consideration. Perhaps that doesn't strike you as a bad thing -- but consider it in the case of, say, openly avowed racism or extremism -- views which might objectively be as rare as ever, but perhaps feel more common than they've been in recent memory.

There are also risks latent even for the holders of the dissident opinions themselves, for they as much as anyone might be mislead into thinking their views are more widely shared than they are. If someone holds a view they know is rare but wish was widely shared, they must endeavor to persuade others to adopt it. If they then, say, run for office on its platform whose tenets are held by only 10% of the population, if (or when) they lose they probably won't be happy but they at least probably won't be confused. Unpopular opinions don't win elections.

But things are different if the search heuristic misfires and makes the dissident believe they are actually expressing a very common view. If they nonetheless persistently lose in the democratic arena, they might suspect bias, corruption, institutional barriers, or other forms of foul play are obstructing them. To be clear: there are many cases where such things are at work; I'm not saying that everyone who believes their views are not carrying the democratic day because of various social biases is simply misleading themselves. But sometimes a democratic spade really is just a spade; and there is at least the potential for this sort of self-deception to accelerate -- the result being greater mistrust and resentment of social institutions.

It's worth noting that there isn't an "objective" way of declaring whether a view is "rare" or not. Much of it already lies in framing: "held by 1% of the population" sounds uncommon, "held by three million Americans" sounds reasonably common. So we can't quite say that, even if the search heuristic is misfiring, it is objectively causing us to label "uncommon opinions" as "common". But I do suspect that our wider net of appraisals around how we relate to an opinion based on its perceived "commonality" are tied to the same set of assumptions under which the search heuristic should function at least roughly well -- meaning that if we no longer exist in that social world, the whole edifice comes under serious strain (if it doesn't collapse outright).

These are preliminary thoughts; they are not wholly hashed out in my mind yet, and I'm curious to hear others' views. Here's the tl;dr

  1. The search heuristic tells us that, roughly speaking, a view that is hard to find upon searching for it is rare, and a view that is easy to find upon searching for it is commonplace.
  2. The social media revolution has drastically reduced the search costs required to find large absolute numbers of persons who hold any particular view, even when they are actually relatively uncommon.
  3. Together, (1) & (2) cause us to mentally code many viewpoints which we'd perceive as uncommon as quite common (since we are able to find examples of them with little effort).
  4. The effects of this are unclear, but may include (a) increased willingness to air dissident views; (b) decreased sense of social consensus; (c) decreased ability to distinguish relatively common versus uncommon views; (d) decreased trust that formal mechanisms for measuring public opinion reliably track actual public viewpoints (even when they are in fact doing so reasonably well).

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Advancing Downward

For your pleasure, a tiny example of academic absurdity I encountered today.

As many of you know, I'm completing my Ph.D in the UC-Berkeley Political Science department. Today, I was asked by the department if I would be interested in teaching a class for them this fall. I had a few logistical questions, but the important one for our purpose was how this job -- and in particular, its pay -- would be impacted if I filed my dissertation (and thereby finished the program over the summer).

To be clear: regardless of whether I was technically still a Ph.D. student or an actual, factual minted Ph.D., I'd be teaching the exact same class and doing the exact same work. I'd just have a different title: "Lecturer" if I have a Ph.D., "Acting Instructor" if I do not.

So you might be thinking that I shouldn't get a pay raise just because I've got some fancy new letters after my name (you might also think that, if one's job description is exactly the same as a "Ph.D. student" versus as a department lecturer, then such "students" are, in fact, employees and should be treated as such. But we'll leave that aside for now.).

But if I would just be paid the same for the same class before and after garnering the credential of Ph.D., I wouldn't find that absurd and I wouldn't be writing this post. No, the truth is that if I deign to file my dissertation and graduate, I'd be paid less as a Lecturer -- substantially so. I'd also lose my health insurance.

So as best I can tell, the best play for me is to just arbitrarily delay "finishing" my Ph.D., even if it is complete by this summer. Which seems foolish for a host of reasons -- but certainly not more foolish than nominally advancing up the ladder of academia resulting in somehow making less money with fewer benefits than a graduate student.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

My Encounters with Richard Epstein

Apropos of current events, I thought I might share my three encounters with Richard Epstein.

Normally, I'd say "interactions" rather than "encounters", but in this case it would not be accurate -- there was no "inter-", as I never got a word in edgewise.

The first time came while I was sitting in the University of Chicago Law School common area (Epstein was for many years a University of Chicago law professor, though these days he's more associated with NYU and the Hoover Institute at Stanford). The law school cafe does not have pizza, but that day I had gone to the main food court on campus to pick up a few slices which I had brought back to the law school to eat. Epstein spotted my pizza as he was walking across the room and, without breaking stride or taking a breath said something like the following:
Where did you get that pizza I like pizza you can't get good pizza around here it's not like New York maybe I'll get some pizza for lunch!
Despite the fact that the opener was at least nominally addressed as a question to me, he never glanced backwards and I never had a chance to speak. By the time he was finished with his train of thought, he was halfway across the room and out of earshot anyway.

The second encounter came while I was sitting in on a faculty workshop featuring a presentation by Bernard Harcourt (now at Columbia) on 19th century French grain market regulations (or something like that). Harcourt is a good old fashioned Foucault acolyte, which made him stand out a bit at Chicago in general, and the thesis of this paper was that there was no such thing as market "deregulation" only "reregulation", which made him a target of Epstein in particular. Epstein asked him how it could be that there was no such thing as "deregulation" -- what if you just repeal all the regulations? -- and Harcourt responded by saying that the market is its own form of regulation that can have just as much disciplining effect, so "repealing" the regulations just results in a different form of regulation emerging. This answer was not satisfactory to Epstein, and they went back and forth along this vein for a bit -- is this deregulation or reregulation? -- until Epstein got frustrated and exclaimed "well that's just a semantic game." And Harcourt responded, with the perfect serenity of a continental political theorist:
"Everything is just a semantic game."
Reports were that it was the only time most of Epstein's colleagues had actually seen him rendered speechless.

The third encounter was also at a faculty workshop, this one for M. Todd Henderson, a corporate law professor and bastion of the law school's right flank, whom I happened to know idolized Epstein. I forget what Henderson was presenting on, but it must have been some way of de-(or re-?)regulating corporate law so as to minimize the government's role, and one could tell from the puppy eyes that he was hoping for Epstein's approval. Alas, it was apparently still too much government for Epstein, who went on a sustained rant that concluded "and then we're on the path to totalitarianism!" All of Epstein's comments on the papers of others concluded with that, but Henderson was still crushed.

Finally, while not an "encounter" per se, there was a running joke around the law school while I was there, to the effect that if Richard Epstein wrote the Constitution it would have only one amendment which would read "Congress shall make no law." In a similar vein, his known status as a polymath who worked in a dizzying array of legal subfields was thought to be counterbalanced by the somewhat "thematic" link tying together the contribution he was said to bring to all of them: if it's communications law, abolish the FCC. If it's election law, abolish the FEC. If it's health care law, abolish the FDA. If it's environmental law, abolish the EPA .... you get the idea.